Learning skills of slowness may be particularly beneficial—and particularly challenging—for those who think the fastest.
According to psychologist Martin Seligman, in his most recent book, Flourish, the ability to think and learn quickly provides extra time for the more conscious, slow processes of "planning, refining, checking for errors, and creativity"—but only if we know how and are able to slow down to begin with.
The very nature of intensity has a slow quality about it, one that, even for hard-wired fast movers and thinkers, zooms in on the moment and captures it, stopping time, if only for a moment. However, for many people with an intense drive to learn, insatiable curiosity, multipotentiality, and the long habit of moving and living quickly, being able to stop long enough to learn valuable skills is not only difficult, but unpleasant, even scary. I am reminded of a gifted elementary school teacher as she told me about her plans for an upcoming break. The year had been particularly hectic for her as she juggled long commutes to her job and her son's school, working at home to help her husband's business, and some of her own health issues. She knew she needed some serious slow time.
What she told me has stayed with me ever since: "I'm afraid to slow down too much, because if I do, I might not be able to get going again."
What are the benefits, intellectually, of slowing down?
Seligman describes how intellectual speed "comes at a cost" by sharing his own experience in graduate school, where he earned a Ph.D. in two years and eight months:
"I found myself missing nuances and taking shortcuts when I should have taken the mental equivalent of a deep breath. I found myself skimming and scanning when I should have been reading every word. I found myself listening poorly to others: I would figure out where they were headed after the first few words and then interrupt. And I was anxious all the time—speed and anxiety go together." (pp. 110-111)
Not only do habitual skimming and scanning (as useful as those skills are) make for potentially less rigorous scholarship and conversation, they also preclude the enjoyment that comes from what Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, calls "deep reading," the kind of reading in which we immerse ourselves in a single text for an extended period of time. One of Carr's themes is that the distractions inherent in web-based reading (hyperlinks, multiple tabs, email notifications) train us to avoid the more single-focused, understimulating experience of deep reading that is, whatever our usual reading speed, slower than the "skim-scan-share on social media" model.
Like Carr, "I can feel it." Whether the result of the internet or other aspects of my life, I realized about four years ago that I had stopped reading in the way I once did. I still did read, quite a bit, in fact. Reading is part of my job, part of who I am. But I had acquired the habit at some point along the way of reading distractedly, in snatches, with my mind always being pulled to the next thing, the nearest tab, and rarely did the experience of reading bring me the joy and fulfillment I'd remembered from my youth.
My return to deep reading began the summer before our son went to college, when I decided to re-read all of the Harry Potter books in a marathon session so as to be able to discuss them with him on our daily walks. It took awhile before I could lose myself in the pages. My mind was abuzz at first. I read too quickly—a tendency I've always had—and I could almost feel my brain reaching out beyond the book, wanting to check email or move to another task, but, in time, I found the rhythm of deep reading I'd once had as a child. The results have been far greater than simply adding books to my "have read" list, as Carr explains:
"It is the very fact that book reading ' understimulates the senses' that makes the activity so intellectually rewarding. By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking. The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one." (p. 123)
Does everyone seek or even need this kind of experience? I'm not sure. I know plenty of brilliant, successful, happy people who rarely read books cover to cover. All I am certain of is that deep reading and the calmness and slower thinking it brings are important for me, not only for my ability to write well, but for my peace of mind.
While I agree with Jonah Lehrer in his review of The Shallows that Google is not making us stupid, I do know that, for myself, every once in awhile I need to reassess my own needs for sustained attention and slowness in our modern world so filled with 34 gigabytes of daily distractions. Most of the time, when I need to make changes, they are in the form of paring away what is extraneous and refocusing my attention on what is truly important. The tricky part is that what needs to be pared and what needs more attention are decisions only I can make. Some people are naturally slower or faster in their thinking and living than others, My fast may be someone else's slow. My multi-tasking may be someone else's sustained attention
For fast thinkers, learning skills and habits of slowness may be more important than ever. The good news is that they can be learned.
How will you practice slowing down? In addition to the ideas below, be sure to read fellow Psychology Today blogger Christine Louise Hohlbaum's posts on The Power of Slow.
Who knew that a little mistyped "b" instead of an "m" could cause so many problems? The plunge on Wall Street in 2010 was supposedly triggered in part by someone's typing "billion" instead of "million" (reminiscent of the famous typo at the beginning of the movie Brazil).
I know that I make many more typos and find them less often than before I began to write on word processors and computers, and I attribute it to (no, not age, although I probably could) faster writing. Now, I love the speed with which today's super-light keyboards let me type, but, to paraphrase Truman Capote, I wonder how often this leads to more typing than writing.
We can consciously slow down our writing by experimenting with allowing our writing to guide and to shape our thoughts, rather than racing to capture everything in our minds. Slow, guided writing is a practice best done in longhand. Good resources are creativity expert Julia Cameron's morning pages. and Julia Alvarez's Slow Writing.
One of the things I appreciate most about our son's homeschooling was his chance to learn slowly and deeply rather than quickly and in a scattered way. See the Slow Movement's Slow Schools and Slow Education for ideas and inspiration, watch the New York Times video op-ed Advanced Pressure for a glimpse at what too-fast learning can look like, and read this story of how slow and steady really did win the race for a woman who fulfilled her dream of getting a college degree-after 39 years.
Carl Honore, author of In Praise of Slowness, talks about making the choice to slow down in "a world obsessed with speed, with doing everything faster, with cramming more and more into less and less time" in this Ted Talk, a good video to watch as a family:
Social media expert Jay Baer has called for a support of slowness in social media and branding. He writes, "It's up to all of us to redefine what social media 'success' looks like, to focus our efforts on building kinship day-to-day, and yielding sustained passion for the brand." How we use Facebook and Twitter and other forms of modern marketing and communication really is our choice. We can choose to limit friend requests and lists, especially from people we don't know, choose to give ourselves social media holidays, to opt our for short or long periods of time. Opting out of social media, even for a day, frees up time to opt in to other areas of our lives.
Finally, consider creating the time to add one or more hobbies to your life, especially a hobby that forces you to slow down. I cannot knit fast (believe me, I've tried). Knitting is a practice that teaches me to take life stitch by stitch, dropped stitches and all. There is no other way to finish a sock or sweater or shawl. In the words of Carl Honore, "Slow hobbies have never been hotter."
Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.
Seligman, M.E.P., Flourish (2011) N.Y.: Simon & Schuster.
Photo credit: Kriss Szkurlatowski